In an exquisitely romantic moment late in the “Downton Abbey” movie, someone dances with someone else, out on the steps of a grand country home, as the sunset glows like amber and the camera pulls away to showcase the picture-perfect countryside caught in that magic light. And … mere days after seeing the movie, I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the second person in that dance, or how exactly that person came to be there. And it doesn’t matter, not a whit; this isn’t really a movie, but a delicious wallow, and regular movie rules don’t apply.
I have absolutely no idea how a newcomer to the world of “Downton Abbey,” as depicted in the six-season TV series, will react to “Downton Abbey: The Movie” (oh, let’s call it DA: TM), but I suspect it would involve a lot of comically blank looks and maybe a need for a drink afterward. So let’s just say this: If you loved “Downton Abbey,” particularly if you fantasized about its fashion and gasped over its architecture and maybe found yourself the teensiest bit in love with at least one of its characters (yes, of course I did all of those things; one of these days I plan to teach a college course on Lady Mary’s outfits) — DA: TM is for you. If you remained utterly indifferent to the “Downton” phenomenon — it isn’t. Off you go. Go see “Hustlers” or “Ad Astra” or something — they’re good! — and be well.
Are we alone now, Downton fans? OK then. This is a movie for which my scribbled notes from the screening contain pithy gems like “The staircase!” “The necklaces!” “HENRY!” Because, let’s be honest, very little happens. And that’s all right; it’s quite enough that we’re back at Downton, listening to the Dowager Countess (the great Maggie Smith, in fine form) being crisply dismissive, and watching Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) barking orders to the staff, and evaluating the level of smirky chill in the smile Edith (Laura Carmichael) gives to Mary (Michelle Dockery).
Essentially, DA: TM is two hours of Downton’s Greatest Hits. The series left off, after six seasons, with everybody happy; the movie leaves off the same way, with just a bit of picturesque twaddle in between. Said twaddle involves a royal visit to Downton — yes, that’s it, that’s the plot — with a few little sidebars involving Edith pouting about something (because it isn’t Downton if Edith isn’t required to look aristocratically pained), Daisy (Sophie McShera) up in arms about something (ditto, non-aristocratically), Tom (Allen Leech) trying to find his place in Downton’s world, etc. etc. Meanwhile, the upstairs people complain about how very, very exhausted they all are (these are folk, mind you, who literally don’t have to dress themselves), and the downstairs people blather on about Downton’s Glory. In the TV series, creator Julian Fellowes ran out of ideas somewhere around Season 3, and the movie illustrates, in large scale, that nothing’s changed. (Even Downton fans will have fun afterward poking holes in the plot.)
But DA: TA also reminded me of Fellowes’ great strength: he creates characters that we care about, and what a joy it was to spend time with them again. There’s a scene involving the Dowager and Mary, late in the film, that’s as good as anything in the finest days of the series (which is to say, Seasons 1-2); a moment of sweet hopefulness for poor, vulnerable Thomas, the former Evil Butler (Robert James-Collier); and the great pleasure of seeing Joanne Froggatt’s ever-noble Anna smiling again. And then there’s that glorious eye candy — call it Downton porn — writ large: the costumes (by Anna Robbins, each lovelier than the last), the twilight, the landscapes and, most of all, Highclere Castle itself, getting its swoonworthy big-screen due. It’s not a great movie, not by any definition, but I happily lapped up every minute. Nice to see you back, Downton; this fan missed you.
★★★ “Downton Abbey,” with Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton. Directed by Michael Engler, from a screenplay by Julian Fellowes. 122 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language. Opens Sept. 20 at multiple theaters.